Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Whose COIN?

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Whose COIN?

Article excerpt

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When American and Iraqi army units were integrated to foster closer cooperation between the groups and to intensify Iraqis' training, a number of challenges arose with regard to the latrines they were to share. The Iraqi soldiers, many of them farm boys, were used to relieving themselves by squatting above holes. When they were made to use Western facilities, they squatted on the toilet seat rims, sometimes making, sometimes missing, their target. They also used their left hands instead of toilet paper and cleaned their hands by wiping them on the walls of the latrines. This situation left the Americans with three options: adapt to the Iraqi way, teach the Iraqis the American way, or let each group follow its own culture and set up separate latrines. The third option was selected. (1)

In trying to build a professional, national Afghan police, the United States posted members of one tribe in the territory of other tribes, on the grounds that the tribe members should give up their local identities and become loyal Afghan cops. As one observer put it, "They might as well paint targets on their foreheads." (2) Indeed, many of the new policemen refused to leave their compounds, and others simply vanished.

In Marjah, U.S. military officials have decided not to eradicate the poppy fields because they provide a major source of income for farmers--much more than they could make from the alternative crops the Americans were fostering. At the same time, the military is concerned that profits from poppy sales are a key funding source for the Taliban. Hence, the U.S. military is engaged in some eradication, some of the time.

These three situations illustrate a critical point that the champions of counterinsurgency (COIN) (3) have not worked out: are they going to accept the local culture and practices and work with and around them--a fixer-upper approach? Seek to change the culture extensively and follow a new construction approach? Or continue to treat this key matter in a confused and conflicted way?

In sorting out this issue, I do not rehash the well-covered debate over whether COIN, understood as a combination of military forces and political reconstruction, is a superior strategy to traditional warfare in which the enemy is defeated and U.S. forces withdraw. Nor will I compare COIN to the course Vice President Joe Biden advocated, which entails withdrawing all U.S. and allied ground troops from Afghanistan and suppressing the remaining terrorists through drone and bombing attacks and some remaining Special Forces--the way the United States currently does in Yemen.

My main argument takes for granted that COIN is called for, but holds that if COIN is to work, it must be profoundly recast. The recasting would best occur through three highly interwoven facets: setting much lower, but more realistic, goals for the political element; determining which elements can be introduced into the prevailing culture (rather than building new ones, Western-style) and which--optimally few--elements of the local culture must be rejected; and drawing much more on forces already in place (often local and tribal) rather than forging new, often national, forces. In their recent article on Afghanistan, T.X. Hammes, William McCallister, and John Collins, after demonstrating that the key assumptions that underlie COIN are not supported by evidence, called for a new strategy. (4) This article takes a stab at that mission.

The underlying sociological thesis, based on my 50 years of studying societal change, is that societal engineering is difficult to bring about; that advancing societal changes according to one's design (in contrast to societal changes that occur on their own account) typically requires a much greater commitment of resources over much longer periods of time than is widely assumed and available; and that most such projects are prone to failure.

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This thesis gained traction in the 1980s when the neoconservatives pointed out that most of the liberal Great Society programs introduced in the United States in the 1960s failed. …

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